‘Neuromancer’ Book Club Part III: Theology And Technology

This post contains spoilers through “The Straylight Run.” If you want to spoil beyond that, please label comments as such. And for next week, let’s finish the novel.

As something of a theology nerd, I particularly liked the parts of this section that are about the ways, both beautiful and terrifying, that technology brings us closer to the divine — or at least, redefines the boundaries of what’s considered possible and what’s considered miraculous. The Turing authorities who come to arrest Case are both literally and metaphorically advocates of those boundaries. They hold the guns to the AIs heads not simply because of practical concerns, because they see unincumbered artificial intelligences free to pursue their will to knowledge as a way evil comes into the world. As one of them says: “You have no care for your species. For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible. And what would you be paid with? What would your price be, for aiding this thing to free itself and grow?”

Of course Case doesn’t accept that conception and forges forward. Wintermute kills his pursuers, freeing him to dive into the ice and encounter Wintermute’s opposite number, a boy on a beach in a dream, as untechnological a vision as we have in the entire novel:

“You’re the other AI. You’re Rio. You’re the one who wants to stop Wintermute. What’s your name? Your Turing code. What is it?” The boy did a handstand in the surf, laughing. He walked on his hands, then flipped out of the water. His eyes were Riviera’s, but there was no malice there. “To call up a demon you must learn its name. Men dreamed that, once, but now it is real in another way. You know that, Case. Your business is to learn the names of programs, the long formal names, names the owners seek to conceal. True names . . .” “A Turing code’s not your name.” “Neuromancer,” the boy said, slitting long gray eyes against the rising sun. “The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road, but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend,” and the boy did a little dance, brown feet printing the sand, “I am the dead, and their land.” He laughed. A gull cried. “Stay. If your woman is a ghost, she doesn’t know it. Neither will you.” “You’re cracking. The ice is breaking up.” “No,” he said, suddenly sad, his fragile shoulders sagging. He rubbed his foot against the sand. “It is more simple than that. But the choice is yours.” The gray eyes regarded Case gravely. A fresh wave of symbols swept across his vision, one line at a time. Behind them, the boy wriggled, as though seen through heat rising from summer asphalt. The music was loud now, and Case could almost make out the lyrics.

I think part of what I like about this moment is that it is, in a way, a strong statement in support of the appeal of the irregularity, mysticism, and oddness of humanity. An AI’s invested in the power of names, the life story and tragic death of the woman who dreamed him into being, whose youthful experiences he incorporated into the world he’s created for his ghosts. There’s something almost generous about Neuromancer’s wistful desire to provide a refuge for what’s left of Linda. Even technology strives towards heaven.

The most important lost soul, the secret architect of Straylight, of Tessier-Ashpool, is the late Marie-France. There’s something incredibly poignant about 3Jane’s essay about the family’s plans, the disappointments of their will to power: “Tessier and Ashpool climbed the well of gravity to discover that they loathed space. They built Freeside to tap the wealth of the new islands, grew rich and eccentric, and began the construction of an extended body in Straylight. We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self.”

But there are two questions I have about all of this that I think Gibson’s not particularly clear about? Is corporate power good or bad? And was Marie-France’s plan going to be effective? Would Marie-France’s vision have brought something new into being? Or would her plan to create a symbiosis between the members of her family and their AIs would have just provided a more stable immortal platform for the continuation of their inevitable instability and corruption? Case describes a difference between corporations and he understands them and the Tessier-Ashpools, but it’s not clear if the family model is better, though it certainly is more human and more tragic:

Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory. But Tessier-Ashpool wasn’t like that, and he sensed the difference in the death of its founder. T-A was an atavism, a clan. He remembered the litter of the old man’s chamber, the soiled humanity of it, the ragged spines of the old audio disks in their paper sleeves. One foot bare, the other in a velvet slipper.

So are we supposed to regard Marie-France’s death as a tragedy? Her husband is certainly repulsive, waking up to indulge his addictions and to have sex with and murder clones of his daughters. It doesn’t seem like he’s contributing much to the governance or direction of the company, treating the AIs as if they’re troublesome annoyances. Even if she’d lived, it’s not clear that her family would have truly been able to comprehend or carry her legacy forward. 3Jane clearly admires her mother but is frank about the fact that she doesn’t quite understand the older woman, telling Molly “She was quite a visionary…Fascinating. I’ll play her tapes for you, nearly a thousand hours. But I’ve never understood her, really, and with her death, her direction was lost. All direction was lost, and we began to burrow into ourselves. Now we seldom come out. I’m the exception there.”